A nation on the march
BY GERRY McGEOUGH
Twenty years ago this month, the nationalist coimmunity across the Six Counties was mobilising in support of the five demands of the Irish republican POWs, on hunger strike in Long Kesh since 27 October.
For years, the relatives Action Committee had been doing its utmost to highlight the plight of the political prisoners in Long Kesh and Armagh Jail. While there was a widespread undercurrent of concern for those on the blanket and the conditions they were enduring on the no wash protest, this was not manifesting itself significantly beyond the republican core, which was prepared to turn out for demonstrations and the like.
The advent of the hunger strike, however, saw visible support for the prisoners' cause rise considerably and new faces were increasingly in evidence at marches and meetings. This was very much the case in Tyrone, and it was tremendously encouraging to witness the rapid rate with which H Block/Armagh committees sprang up acrosss the county.
Support for the hunger strikers was by no meanms confined to the Six Counties, of course, and this latest form of protest struck a chord with people throughout Ireland and beyond. The unreasonable intransigence of Thatcher's British government stood in stark contrast to the dignity of the prisoners' struggle. Historical comparisons were being drawn with the republican hunger strikers of previous generations and atavistic memories of ancient Celtic customs relating to fasting for justice were being aroused. The huge national demonstrations in Dublin, drawing people from all over the 32 counties, reflected this groundswell of support.
Meanwhile, night after chilly November night, ever growing crowds marched to rallies in practically every town and small village across Tyrone. The procedure varied little. People would assemble, light the ubiquitous torches (invariably a tin can nailed to a piece of wood and filled with firelighters) and march off behind one or more local bands in columns of three, complete with banners, posters and pictures of the hunger strikers. A flat bed truck and often improvised PA system usually denoted the rallying point and, en route, marchers availed of a repertoire of slogans to chant their support for the prisoners. The presence of RUC and/or British Army personnel always guaranteed a vociferous crowd.
One of the most striking aspect of the campaign was the behaviour of the Crown forces. It actually seemed as if they didn't quite know how to react to the growing number and size of demonstrations. For more than a decade they had met nationalist resistance with brute repression, but now, in the face of glaring international interest, their jackboot tactics had to be reined in. This reality was mirrored by a growing confidence among nationalists and something of the spirit of the old Civil Rights days returned to many a heart. In light of this, the British evoidently felt obliged to confine themselves to acts of petty harassment on lonely country roads, but even these were being undermined.
On one occasion, for example, a checkpoint was mounted outside the village of Mountfield in order to delay a rally set to be held there that night. As the line of traffic grew, people all of a sudden took control of the situation by getting out of their vehicles and heading off on foot to the village. Recalling a previous incident in Beragh, however, where the windscreens of supporters' parked cars had been smashed by ``loyalists'', someone pointed out the danger of a similar situation arising. In response, an event unfolded hitherto unthinkable in such a scenario as drivers turned on their full headlights and began blowing their horns in unison. The result was instant and dramatic. Exposed like frightened wildebeest, RUC and British soldiers alike began scurrying in all directions, some even taking to the fields, leaving the road clear for the decent demonstrators of Tyrone to be about their business.
Uppermost in people's minds were the ever-deteriorating conditions of the hunger strikers. As the protest wore on, the growing sense of anger and frustration drew even greater crowds at marches, pickets, rosary vigils, days of strike action and so forth.
This period marked a watershed not fully appreciated at the time. The two hunger strikes provided the catalyst that launched the republican movement onto the path of long-term political awareness and development. The gains we have made should be appreciated, for they were achieved at a high price.